With the fall season getting into full swing throughout the state, Arkansas Catholic spoke with coaches at various parochial high schools about what and whom to watch for in the fall semester in their respective sports.
The St. Joseph Bulldog volleyball team in Conway is looking for bigger and better things in 2010, and considering their 2009 performance, that's saying something. Luke Davis' squad dropped just one game last year, his fourth season as head coach. Unfortunately, that one loss -- against 23 wins and a 3A Central conference title -- came in the state tournament championship against Mansfield.
"Obviously, we weren't very happy about that," Davis said. "We were a little wide-eyed in the championship."
The team returns six starters among its seven seniors and six junior varsity players. Leading that charge are senior twin sisters Jessica and Jordan Justice. Jessica, a setter, is one of two team captains and the acknowledged floor general while Jordan, a defensive specialist, is known for her aggressive, hustling play. The two also have an advantage that at first would appear to be a liability, according to Davis. Both are barely 5 feet tall, which has caused many opponents to underestimate their skills and the sisters have used that to their advantage during their four years as starters.
Other players to watch this year include co-captain Amy Schichtl, senior outside hitter, senior Brandi Elsinger, a four-year starter at middle hitter and blocking positions, and senior Megan Pilson at outside hitter. The three are key to St. Joseph's aggressive style of play.
"We like to attack," Davis said. "We want to get as many swings as we can. We get more hits than just about anybody because we are attacking consistently."
Experience and team chemistry are the watchwords for the Mount St. Mary's volleyball team in 2010. Coach Kelly O'Rourke lost experience at the outside hitter and middle blocker positions, positions she filled with sophomore talent. Bringing these relative newcomers into the varsity fold has required extra effort.
"At times, we look very young and at other times, we look like we have a lot of experience," she said. "The young ones are trying to make that transition from the freshman game to the varsity game which isn't just physical, there's a mental part to it, too. They have to learn how to let the previous point go and focus on what's coming at them. I think we're probably 70 percent towards that."
Mount St. Mary is coming off a year where the team placed third in the conference and won their opening round match in the state tournament. O'Rourke, who after coaching the freshman team for eight years has been at the helm of the varsity squad for three, said the team is eyeing a conference title in 2010 and a return to state. O'Rourke said the squad must play consistent good defense, particularly in shutting down big opposing servers.
Leading the charge will be senior team co-captains Emily Sprick, an outside hitter, and Mary Katherine Shamburger, setter. Other key components to this year's team are seniors Tori Phillips, middle blocker, and Sara Buratowski, defensive specialist. O'Rourke said the team has its eye on a conference title, but will have to contend with powerhouse Conway to do so. Qualifying for state has become something of a given in the Mount program, but 2009 was the first year in O'Rourke's three-year term at the helm where the team made it out of the first round, so going deeper in the state tourney is another priority. The Belles' last state championship came in 1996.
Entering its 10th season, the goal for the Catholic High School cross country team is simple -- win the first conference championship in its history.
"We know where we've been and we are highly motivated," said head coach Mark Andersen. "This team can hang with anyone in the conference."
The Rockets started last year's campaign posting two strong team performances right out of the gate. However, the squad struggled through the middle of the season and finished a disappointing fourth in conference and 11th in the state.
"I think we got away from the basics," Andersen said of the team's late season swoon. "The early success we had may have contributed to the drop off later on as well. We will not let them lose focus this year."
One other element of last year's team that won't be an issue this year is leadership. This year's squad brings the experience lacking in 2009 to the table, led by senior Alex Chaffin and sophomore Noah Findlay, both of whom enjoyed stellar track seasons last spring as well. A second senior, Ben Stansell, was singled out as one of the team's most improved runners and one to watch during the 2010 campaign.
"I consider Ben our team leader. He's very vocal and he leads by example," Andersen said. "He's not afraid to get in someone's face and let them know what the team needs from them. He's got to be a solid number three runner for us to be successful."
The 2010 Rockets also features the second largest freshman class in the team's history with 14 runners. Andersen called the newcomers the deepest group of freshman the program has ever had and close to the most talented as well.
Faced with what some are calling a rebuilding year for the Mount St. Mary cross country team, head coach Scott Pursley found himself in the same position as all Arkansas coaches this summer -- how to stick to badly needed workout schedules in the face of the hottest summer on record. The answer came almost by accident during a training session at the Big Dam Bridge when the team stumbled onto a nature trail on the North Little Rock side of the river.
"It was easily 10 to 15 degrees cooler on the nature trail," Pursely said. "Plus there was just something about running in the forest. Those girls ran fast in there."
Apparently, they haven't stopped running fast. The team has started the year with two top three team finishes in its first two meets, led by freshmen Callie Cochrane and Katie Miskin who medaled in both outings. Pursley described the freshmen class, seven members strong, as "remarkable."
"These girls are very, very strong," he said, adding the parochial junior high track league deserves a lot of credit for producing high caliber runners.
Miskin and Cochrane are two of five new faces to watch, according to Pursely. The others include Lucy Moore, Andrea Nunez-Garcia and Claire Kane, the latter of whom has also medaled in the early going this year.
Pursley said the team faces stiff competition from local powers Bryant and Cabot and called some of the teams in northwest Arkansas "unbelievable," noting the state championship will be run in Rogers on the home course of one of the most powerful cross country teams in the state.
"Cross country is a funny sport," he said. "What happens, if you're doing it right, is you have an entire team trying to improve and beat their personal best. That's what's great about it, seeing how these young women improve and how good they feel about themselves as a result of that improvement."
Subiaco Academy's tennis program, one of the most successful among Arkansas high schools, has hit the ground running in 2010. Despite having just one week of practice between students' arrival on campus and the team's first outing, the squad won its first two matches of the year and looks to be poised for even better things.
"We're hoping to do well," said Brother Adrian Strobel, OSB, head coach. "Our main goal is to win each match as we go. You can't look too far forward."
Brother Adrian's 2010 squad is short on experience. Tyler Schluterman from Subiaco and Feargal Gilmore from Freeport, Maine, are the only returning seniors from a 2009 campaign that tied for the conference championship. Schluterman also placed third in the conference meet last year, earning him a trip to the state tournament, while Gilmore narrowly missed a trip to state.
Half of the other 10 players on this year's roster are sophomores and include Texans Patrick Leavey and Jackson Horn. Brother Adrian said he is expecting big things from the duo, who have already solidified their position as the number two doubles team.
When Brother Adrian calls you a player to watch -- or says anything else about the Trojan tennis program for that matter -- people listen. He's led the squad since 1974 during which time he has compiled a record of 228 wins, 46 losses and four ties and won nine state 4A titles, most recently in 2008. Only twice in 36 years at the conference meet has the team failed to produce a singles or doubles champion.
Yet, the four-time Arkansas High School Tennis Coach of the Year and 2005 National High School Tennis Coach of the Year is still reaching milestones.
"I've been blessed with good players," he said. "We go to the weight room, we run every day and I tell them to eat a good breakfast every day. Other than that, we mainly just work out on the courts."
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